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Review of Vinograd & Lerner, eds.‘s New American Underground Poetry Vol. 1 by Charles Ries

Context, talent and emerging form are the co-parents of art movements. When these three aspects of great art collide (as they seldom do), a child is conceived. A creative voice so unique in its character that when it is seen, heard, or read it guides the reader unmistakably back to its place of origin.

As I read the thirty-two poets whose works comprise this expansive anthology, entitled New American Underground Poetry Vol. 1: The Babarians of San Francisco—Poets from Hell, I welcomed the raw honest energy I found in these long narrative poems. I felt as if I was there with them, listening to them. They called themselves the Babarians. Every Thursday night from the mid-late 80’s through about 1994, their home was a tiny wine and beer tavern located on twenty-second and Guerrero in the Mission District of San Francisco. For just under ten years it was the home of a perfect storm—a Thunder Dome in which spoken word poetry of high emotion, insight, and humor was delivered and refined. This excerpt from David Lerner’s, “Mein Kampf” addresses the objective of their collective efforts: “all I want to do / is make poetry famous // all I want to do is / burn my initials into the sun // all I want to do is / read poetry from the middle of a / burning building / standing in the fast lane of the / freeway / falling from the top of the / Empire State Building // the literary world / sucks dead dog dick // I’ll rather be Richard Speck / than Gary Snyder / I’d rather ride a rocket ship to hell / than a Volvo to Bolinas.” And indeed this desire to raise poetry above its lost status as a mainstream literary art colors many of the poems in this collection. These writers wrote and spoke words that could not be confused. They were metaphor lit and smash mouth rich.

Context: The back room at Café Babar. A tiny performance space of only about 30’ x 30’, with wood bleachers and corrugated aluminum siding stretched over the walls. At critical points, the poet could hit the walls and the entire small room would vibrate. Often, there were 75-100 people stuffed shoulder-to-shoulder, crowding the halls and every spare inch of space, hungry for what the poet could do. “The Babar crowd was pretty merciless,” says Zeitgeist Press Co-Founder and Café Babar regular, Bruce Isaacson. “There was no polite applause or lukewarm response. If they loved you, they let you know, and if they didn’t, they really let you know: hoots, whistles, heckling. Even beer glasses would sometimes get tossed at the stage.”

Talent: In the forward to this anthology, co-editor Alan Allen described the odd mix of tribal members to this scene: “The barbarian poets were broke. Won the west-coast slams but couldn’t afford the tickets to go East to compete. Lived only to write, to perform, to read. Many were without jobs (with notable exceptions), or disabled, or addicted, or worked in the sex industry. Most struggled to pay the rent, or eat well, wore thrift-shop clothes. IQ’s were the highest, hearts the biggest, poems what mattered most. Was all about feeling their voices, their words, their lines, their lives.” This collision of wild and diverse poets, writers, musicians, and performers created the ethos of that moment including: Laura Conway, Joie Cook, David West, Eli Coppola, David Gollub, Vampyre Mike Kassel, Kathleen Wood, Zoe Rosenfeld, Sparrow 13 LaughingWand, Q.R. Hand, Alan Kaufman, and numerous others who would go through the baptism of fire that was Café Babar. These writers and many more are featured in this exceptional collection of poetry.

Emerging Form: Richard Silberg in his introduction to The Babarians of San Francisco—Poets from Hell says, “As opposed to movements that have centered on magazines, a college, a writers group, the Babarians have forged their work in a performing space.” He goes on to say, “Babarians focus on that performing voice. The Barbarian voice goes for personhood, somewhat like the voice of Bob Dylan’s lyrics, or a comedian’s voice, or the voice of a TV newsman. Emphasis is shifted from the page to performance. The poem on the page is more like a script or a score.” Berkeley Poet Laureate Julia Vinograd told me, “This period was an explosion of poetry and Café Babar was at its epicenter. The work was unlike anything that had been done before; we fed off each other. New things were being said in ways that were forceful, serious, and funny. The best of the young poets of their time read there along side total unknowns.”

The November 4, 1992 issue of the San Francisco Bay Guardian described the poets reading at Café Babar as, “The Best poets working in America today. The cradle of the American avant-garde tradition. Formed in the crucible of real economic despair & political threat. Poets of lowered expectations & political rage. Café Babar is the symbolic crucible of the spoken-word scene where gather the keepers of the flame—the poets doing poetry before it caught the public eye.”

All the poems in collection were written to be heard and grasped quickly. They speak to the world in which the writer lived. Here was a tribe and a moment in time that personified what is best about poetry—raw, straight forward revelation. Emotional honesty delivered in a manner that demands attention.

Here are two short excerpts from The Babarians of San Francisco. The first is from “I Was a Teenage Godzilla” by Vampyre Mike Kassel. “When I was ten / I was hit by a very small nuclear warhead / which slipped out of a torpedo tube / while my cub scout pack was visiting / the Navy submarine U.S.S. Caligula / on a field trip. / The incident was hushed up. / The other cubs perished / but I mutated into a Teenage Godzilla / just like in the movies. / Only I was still only five feet ten inches tall / Just a friendly li’l two legged radioactive Komodo dragon / It wasn’t so bad / My parents were pissed / but the government paid them off / and they just had to kind of live with it.” And another from Sparrow 13 LaughingWand entitled, “Larry Said”: “Oh the filthy chalice of his skull / blown apart in New York / Oh, his razorback heart and his lead sugar mouth, / Larry said his mother died in a house fire / while he was in the joint / Larry said it was political. / Larry told / the dumbest arrest story I ever heard / how he broke into a liquor store and got too drunk to escape. / The Nevada beauty of his tomcat ass could / scratch your eyes out. / Larry said he was an honest thief. / Larry said I wasn’t queer / because he love me. / Thanksgiving we had lentils under my tarp / in a storm at Davenport. / Larry wasn’t a queer / because I really wasn’t a man.”

They stood stripped naked before a crowd of true believers and had to sell it. They had to make it real, and they had to make it work or they were shouted down. Posers were persecuted at the Café Babar.

Trafford Press.

Distrubted by Zeitgeist Press
ISBN 1-41205270-X
Paper, 323 pages

First published in POESY.

View bio for Charles Ries Published in Spring and Summer 2005

About HDM

Half Drunk Muse was one of the first poetry ezines. It was founded in 1999 and ceased publication in 2006.

Questions/comments? Email samiller@halfdrunkmuse.com.